Monday 18 January 2010

Yard Sale (2006)

Director: Brad Barber

My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2010.
Subtitled 'A sojourn in second hand selling and first time parenting,' Yard Sale is an interesting documentary short, but one whose ultimate value I fear isn't where the filmmaker thinks it is. Brad Barber is the central character in the story, even though his wife Susan has more screen time, given that he's behind the camera for much of the film. He narrates too, pulling us into his quest to find the answers to the questions he and his wife are posing themselves as imminent parents. They're both packrats, you see, possibly as a subconscious reaction to being descendants of Mormon pioneers who had to flee intolerance without the luxury of hauling all their stuff along. But their house is only so big and only has so much space and as two becomes three, the priorities of what takes up that space begin to shift.

So what can they throw out? How do they throw stuff out when they're packrats who see memories in everything they own? What can they really pass on and what can't they bear to leave their possession? Barber wanders out to the yard sales in his neighbourhood to find some answers, from the many other people selling their possessions out of their garages and yards. What motivates them? What motivates us? This was always going to be interesting to me, given that my wife and I are both packrats too, but what I found was that we and the Barbers don't share the same problems.

In fact in my view the Barbers have a completely different problem than they think they have, one that the quest outlined in this 26 minute short doesn't even address. It isn't that they're packrats and it isn't that they have too much stuff; it isn't that they have changing priorities or that they need more room; it isn't that the baby is suddenly going to turn their lives upside down, at least not in that way. It's that they have no idea how to organise anything. That was patently obvious from the scrap of paper Brad uses to jot down the times between contractions, as Susan starts labour on their couch. It's also obvious in how much of their walls we can see. From what we see of it in this film, I could organise the Barbers' house in a day so that they could keep all their stuff, all their memories, and still move in Junior when he pops out.

However while the film fails in its stated objective, it does succeed in others. I couldn't help but notice very early on the irony in the fact that Barber, by virtue of making this film, was creating memories while trying to get rid of memories. What an endless circle that becomes! The film itself is intrinsically a means of adding more stuff to a household that's trying to get rid of stuff. Fortunately Barber eventually discovers this too and that leads to some interesting thoughtfulness on his part. However while he comes close to nailing what all of this means and he certainly learns some important lessons, it proves elusive in the end.

What's most amazing is that the people whose interviews make it into the film are precisely the right people to answer his questions, but he doesn't understand the answers. One lady buys stuff from yard sales every Saturday only for it to add up in boxes in her garage until she has to set up a yard sale of her own to get rid of it again. Barber understands that this is a disease, but he tries to apply it to his own situation without realising that it isn't a disease he has. The only times he really understands a problem that he has himself is when he fights with himself about when to film and when to leave the camera behind and be part of the world he's filming. Those are powerful scenes and they ring very true.

Another lady finds it hard to sell things because of the memories attached to them, but she believes that it's the people that really matter not the things. She's right but the two are not mutually exclusive. The unparalleled joy of rediscovery is what keeps the memories alive, and getting rid of certain types of ephemera is what makes that rediscovery impossible. It's a third lady who really understands what it's all about. She has a house that's full of stuff, but she's a collector who enjoys that stuff on a daily basis, has it constantly around her without ever impeding her way and yet it did not stop her raising a family. There are questions there too, about how memories travel across generations, but those aren't asked.

So this ends up as a mixed bag. It asks some good questions but it doesn't answer all of them. Instead it answers questions that were never asked. Barber has carried on making movies, this being the first of four IMDb credits as a director and, five years on, I wonder if he'll return to this thread. I'd be fascinated to see if he's realised now what he missed here. I wonder if he's realised yet that he and his wife aren't packrats at all, they're just disorganised.

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